Memoirs Salon 16
Welcome to Memoir Salon, Session 16, an excerpt from Snaddlegate Rudder: Going Back to the Land, 1971–1985 by Kitty Axelson-Berry
Short bio (from the author): In 1971, my then-husband and I moved onto 23 acres of woods near Amherst, Massachusetts and tried to live simply. We sawed down trees and created a spot for a house, a garden, and a rough mile-long driveway. We built a cold, leaky geodesic dome using hand saws and chain saws, our own and friends’ labor, and about $2,500, living in a tent with our nine-month-old baby for the couple of months it took. The dome burned down a few years later and we rebuilt, this time with electricity, running water, and gas heaters in several rooms to supplement wood heat. Fifteen years later, I later became a newspaper reporter and editor, and subsequently founded Modern Memoirs, Inc. publishing service and the Association of Personal Historians.
Short description (from the author): This stream-of-consciousness memoir began with dictation to my daughter, a professional transcriptionist (Kirsten Transcribes), and was later expanded upon. It explores my experiences of being part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, which we eventually gave up on to a large extent. We were adult children of privilege trying to raise a house, children, a marriage, and our own food. This is a continuation.
File 4 August 31, 2009. That winter, 1976, I had to get away—the cold weather, underprivilege poverty, and sullenness were overwhelming, so Jocie and I moved into Joan and Norman’s small apartment in Stuyvesantown, on 14th Street and Avenue D, and I helped Joan market The CB Slanguage Language Dictionary. I’d walk Jocie in her stroller past the drunks and addicts of 14th Street to and from the babysitter, and then every Friday night I’d drive with her up to North Leverett, then carry her up the driveway. When I opened the front door, it felt as if I was entering a house that had been empty of human warmth, cold and smelly. Kirsten’s hair would be matted and one time I found the guinea pigs, dead from starvation. I’d spend all day Saturday and most of Sunday cleaning and cooking, and read to Kirsten as much as possible, and then I’d abandon her. Every Sunday it near broke my heart and she grew increasingly downcast. At the time it seemed better than putting her in an inner-city kindergarten, but I was probably wrong.
I just want to go back to a moment in 1971, a sound, a scream, the scream of a child being attacked. We were alone in the tent, Kirsten and I, and I hugged her close, then opened the tent flap to see if somehow another baby had wandered over. Silence, all still. But the sound still haunts me….
Why were we doing this, you might ask. At the time, we felt that things were going to fall apart in the next twenty or thirty years and we wanted to be independent of the military–industrial complex and the system it thrived on. Inspired by Helen and Scott Nearing to live “the simple life,” we discovered belatedly that we were missing key ingredients such as money, knowledge, skills, love, a house, water, and arable land.
Anyway, getting back to food, not that it interests anyone but Okey and Sherri, I made a lot of corn fritters out of the corn I canned, doused with our own maple syrup, not from sugar maples but from woods maples so the ratio was eighteen parts sap to one part syrup instead of eight to one, not with evaporating pans but with saucepans on the woodstove. We would pick up our monthly allotment of United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) surplus food, whatever the government was giving away, when we had some way to get to Greenfield and back. Usually it was two pounds of lard, eight pounds butter, a couple of huge boxes of American cheese, three pounds [sound of wind] of horrible powdered skim milk and powdered eggs, cans of stringy pig and cow meat, and some kind of ground-up meat to slice and fry. A far cry from my vegetarian days. White flour, corn syrup, cornmeal, mountains of sugar and noodles. Good peanut butter.
Other frequent chow was chili, cornbread, buckwheat pancakes, and homemade buckwheat bread, and olive and rosemary whole wheat bread—I’d grind the buckwheat groats and whole wheat berries. Sometimes I’d add ground-up eggshells from our chickens for calcium. Bread with eggshells had to be toasted or it felt there was sand in it. One Thanksgiving, my bread was sliced and served. Norman bit into a slice first—eyebrows went up. Every other face bit into the bread and did the same thing. Now it’s a favorite memory.
I combined the USDA items with back-to-nature organic food through our pre-order co-op. Our families thought we were stupid, crazy, and narcissistic for rejecting what they lived on, mostly desserts. Every week, a group of us would put a check mark next to the items we wanted. Then we’d pick it up at a prearranged time and place in town, which in winter meant getting home and walking up the icy driveway in the dark unless there was a full moon, carrying many pounds of fresh vegetables, dried fruits, grains (millet, cracked oats, whole wheat berries, rolled wheat), bean sprouts, cheese, eggs, peanut butter, soap.… Later, the co-op rented a storefront. (It was in the Alley and later became Yellow Sun Natural Foods, then a Mexican restaurant, a high-end restaurant/bar, then a natural foods market, and so on. It’s a restaurant/bar again.) That failed and the remnants moved to home deliveries by the organizers, who doubled as the town criers, sharing news and information.
In summer 1968, I had taken intensive Japanese at Harvard and become friendly with a macrobiotic commune. They were very certain of themselves and were horrified at how roly-poly and loud my baby nephew Greg was, accusing Lynn of feeding him milk, sugar, and meat, pointing out the sickly looking baby there who was being fed a strictly macrobiotic diet. “He is always calm and quiet, and never upset, because we only give him brown rice to eat.” That was the end of my excursion into extremism of any brand.
Joan and Norman were visiting us one time in the dome with baby Jonathan, and I served buckwheat pancakes with local maple syrup and USDA butter. “Would you like more pancakes?” I asked Norman, who said sure, so I went to work making another batch. Norman tells this story often and here’s what he says was involved:
1) bring in cordwood, split some kindling, build another fire in the woodstove
2) walk to the water hole a quarter of a mile away, chop through the ice with an ice pick—a sturdy hand-held tool with sharp teeth—scoop out the chunks of ice (a bare hand was better than a gloved one because it’s easier to dry off);
3) plunge empty milk bottles sideways into the water, releasing trapped air bubbles, then hold the jug under until they are nearly full;
3) strain out the snow fleas that appeared in March (we melted snow and icicles too, if it was heavy wet snow and clear icicles, and did our best to save water—and use very hot water for washing—rotating soapy water and rinse water)
4) get eggs from the chicken coop;
5) grind wheat berries and buckwheat groats into flour;
6) fuss with the woodstove to get a good temperature for cooking;
7) whisk the USDA powdered milk with water;
8) mix and cook.
Voila! It took an hour and a half. We all laughed and I realized that it would be OK to, at the least, buy flour. “I don’t have to grind the flour” became a mantra, and I got better at prioritizing, with help from The Handbook to Higher Consciousness by Ken Keyes, Jr. (Living Love Center, 1975), which taught me to distinguish between needs and wants. What do we need? What do we want? What do we choose?
Modern Memoirs writes and preserves clients’ personal histories in high quality books, specializing in the as-told-to memoir genre in which the text is authentic and based entirely on the narrator’s own words. White Poppy Press, The Sensible Way to Self-Publish provides full editorial and production services for self-publishing authors, especially poets and memoirists.